Glimpses of 17th-century France

by Kristi Banker, Dramaturgy Intern


While Cyrano is hardly mired in historical details, the play is informed by the background of 17th-century France: the first four acts take place in 1640, the fifth in 1655. During the 1600s, France functioned under the control of an increasingly powerful monarch, fought in a series of wars, and fostered a thriving literary culture. At a rose-tinted glance, this was a time of daring deeds and intrigue, of military valor and intellectual growth, a time in which the intrepid individual could still prove his (or her) mettle.


The Might of Monarchy

“Monarchy…is manifest in the person of our French kings—monarchs who are sovereign, absolute, loved and revered, feared and obeyed—whose grandeur and power is such that there never was a Monarchy in which the kings were so amply endowed.”
L’Assemblée des notables de France, faites par le Roy en sa ville de Rouen,
avec les noms desdictes esleus et notables
, 1617

The French monarchy consolidated power over the course of the 17th Century, moving toward an absolutism perhaps best exemplified by Louis XIV’s alleged declaration: “L’Etat, c’est moi,” or “the state is me.” Although this absolutism had not yet reached its height by the time of Cyrano, the King was seen as a figure ordained by God and swathed in glory, whose most trivial whim influenced the lives of nobles and the daily doings of Parisian citizens.

Cyrano coincides with the rules of two kings (Louis XIII and Louis XIV), who acted in conjunction with two primary ministers (Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin, respectively). During the first four acts of the play (set in 1640), France was under the rule of Louis XIII. Louis XIII became king at the age of eight (his mother, Marie de Medici, served as Regent until the boy came of age), and was largely considered an ineffectual ruler. Indeed, throughout Louis XIII’s rule, the King seemed a figurehead, while Cardinal Richelieu largely directed affairs of state. When Louis XIII died in 1643 (only a year after Richelieu), he left France in the hands of his four-year-old heir, Louis XIV. France once more came under the regency of a boy King’s mother, while Cardinal Mazarin took up Richelieu’s position and power. Even after Louis XIV came of age in 1651, the Cardinal and the Queen continued to weigh heavily on matters of governance; Louis wouldn’t take full control until Mazarin’s death in 1661. Thus, at the time of the play’s fifth act (1655), France was under the control of Louis XIV, his mother, and his minister.

Military Life

During the timeframe of Cyrano, France was entangled in two major wars: the Thirty Years’ War and the Franco-Spanish War. The Thirty Years’ War began in 1618, when Bohemian noblemen rebelled against the Austrian Hapsburgs. Under Richelieu’s guidance, France remained aloof until 1635, then declared war on Spain (and, by extension, Spain’s Hapsburg allies in the Holy Roman Empire). In doing so, Catholic France took a distinctly political move and sided with Protestant powers. Compared to her Hapsburg neighbors, France was poor and weak, and the war began badly for her; by the time the Peace of Westphalia ended the war in 1648, however, France emerged among the victors and was situated to become the dominant power on the continent. Although the Thirty Years’ War had come to an end, conflict with Spain continued through the Franco-Spanish War and ended only in 1659, with France again victorious.

Unlike today’s armies, those of the 17th Century tended to be loose collections of privately financed companies not bound by any common protocol or procedures, often owing more allegiance to their individual commanders than a national flag. Without a unified set of standards or cohesive royal control, companies were left to dictate their own rules and procedures. Within the military, many a French nobleman—particularly younger sons who lacked the luxury of inheriting the family property—found a career. Entering the army as cadets and training to become officers, noblemen were elevated above the common soldier and given the chance to perform dashing deeds of war, perhaps to fashion themselves as heroes.

Lives of the Bold: Dueling and Gascons

“Never fear quarrels, but seek hazardous adventures. [F]ight on all occasions; fight the more for duels being forbidden, since, consequently, there is twice as much courage in fighting.”
-Alexandre Dumas, The Three Musketeers

In or out of battle, French noblemen carried their swords, ever ready to defend slights against their honor. The most trifling quibbles could provoke a man to throw down his glove and challenge the offender, and dueling was so rampant that Richelieu had attempted (unsuccessfully) to ban the practice in 1626. Duels were not necessarily fatal, and need not even involve bloodshed; one’s honor rather than one’s life stood at stake.

Perhaps the most apt illustration of this French bravado could be found in the famously independent Gascons, who make up Cyrano’s company and hail from Gascony in southern France. Disposed toward acts of impulsive violence, prone to braggadocio and pride, and always ready to take on a challenge, Gascons embody the very epitome of swashbuckling panache and have become popular figures in French culture. Undoubtedly, the most famous literary Gascon is D’Artagnan, the daring hero of Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers.


“Paris is admirable. A hundred things happen here every day which people in the country, however clever they may be, have no idea of.”
—Madelon in Molière’s The Pretentious Young Women

If one wanted to be near the pulse of culture or even near people, Paris was a must. Seat of the royal court (until Louis XIV relocated to Versailles in 1682), Paris attracted the most prestigious of the elite and directed the fashions and customs of the day. As a bustling center of culture and society, Paris provided intellectual discourse alongside the spiciest gossip and amusing entertainment; there was always something to hear, always something to do.

As a part of both its social and intellectual scene, Paris hosted a growing collection of salons, gatherings that fostered lively conversation revolving around literature and language. While men were welcome to and did attend, women predominated in these salons. In the midst of a society that tended to restrict women, salons gave ladies of all ages an opportunity to participate in the day’s learned discourse. Out of these salons came the précieuses, women (such as Roxane) who sought to rise above the rabble by means of polished intellect and decorous behavior.

For a look into the more particular references found in Cyrano, head over to the glossary.


Image Resources:
Craveri, Benedetta. The Age of Conversation. Trans. Teresa Waugh. New York: New York Review Books, 2005.
Jones, Colin. The Cambridge Illustrated History of France. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Panicucci, Alfredo. The Life & Times of Louis XIV. Trans. C.J. Richards. Philadelphia: Curtis Books, 1967.
Thornton, Peter. Seventeenth-Century Decoration in England, France and Holland. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983.
Wright, Christopher. The French Painters of the Seventeenth Century. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. 1985.

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